Cattle and chickens: Bydlo, Promenade, The Ballet of the Unhatched Chickens in their Shells

We’re roughly thrust across countries, classes and cultures into a world of harsh brutality in the next piece, ‘Bydlo’, the Polish word for cattle. The painting, now lost, showed a Polish cart on huge wooden wheels, drawn by oxen. We can hear it lumbering along, the grinding LH struggling to move forward, mired in the depths of G sharp minor, while the RH intones a slow-moving, ponderous melody. Mussorgsky’s craftsmanship turns the descending minor 3rd motif of the preceding  Tuileries’  B major top line  into the rising minor 3rd of Bydlo’s bass in the relative minor, giving a subtle, unconscious unity to the two pictures, heard next to each other without an intervening Promenade.
In the middle section, phrases are heard again and again – there’s no escape; we’re going nowhere fast, in fact we’re going nowhere at all. Thick and clumsy, the wheels seem stuck in a rut, until with a huge effort and a massive crescendo the cart pulls free and moves forward painfully slowly, the oxen straining against the weight as they gradually lumber out of sight.
Mussorgsky shocks us without apology after the genteel refinement of  the Tuileries. The following Promenade also gives pause for thought. Starting in a high range, it falters, with unexpected silences.  Frowning minor 2nds appear in deep LH octaves, and the RH follows suit, in angular discomfort. Is Mussorgsky unsettled by the vision of rural Polish poverty after the opulent urban wealth of the Parisian Tuileries?
But suddenly, something catches his eye. Looking ahead, the mood changes; with an anticipatory octave leap and a flurry of hushed, pecking acciacciaturas   …
Mussorsgky has now turned to a gem of a painting, a watercolour which which can still  be viewed in the  Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House), Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg. Or below –
Yes, at last we can see the original inspiration for one of Mussorgsky’s Pictures. It is a costume sketch for a ballet named ‘Trilby’, written in 1870 by composer Yuli Gerber and choreographer Marius Petipa, who was named  premier maître de ballet  of St Perersburg’s Imperial Theatres in 1871; the ballet was performed in St Petersburg in that year. The exhibition catalogue described the sketch: ‘Canary chicks, enclosed as in suits of armour. Instead of headdress, canary heads put on like helmets down to the neck.’
With quick, darting movements, high-pitched chirrups, deft trills and pattering staccatos, the little chicks pirouette, peck and dance their way through the piece, until with a final squawk and a quick bow – they disappear. Irresistible.
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Promenade; Tuileries – Fun and Games in the Gardens

After the shadowed reverie induced by Il Vecchio Castello, it’s as if Mussorgsky needs a brisk walk to shake himself up a little. The final G# is used as a pivot to turn us into the bright sunshine of B major in this Promenade, with the melody confidently proclaimed in bare octaves, striding along … until a sudden halt, and a repeat of the characteristic three-note motif of the melody, as if something caught Mussorgsky’s eye mid-stride, causing him to pause and retrace his steps…

Marche Triomphale 1860s ParisHartmann travelled widely in Europe, and here we find him in Paris. His picture, Tuileries, subtitled The dispute of Children after Play, is lost. It showed a group of children with their nurses. But here is an 1860s photograph of some French children dressed as soldiers in a little marching band [photographer unknown] and below is an 1867 painting by Adolf von Menzel , Tuileries, which must give some idea of the scene. There were twice-weekly concerts in the gardens, attended by the great and the good.

1024px-Adolf_Friedrich_Erdmann_von_Menzel_038Listen to the childish banter of Mussorgsky’s children as they tease and taunt in a sing-song, high-pitched, back-and-forth, over-and-over two-note motif, interspersed with chattering semiquavers. A woebegone little interlude intervenes, sounding rather crestfallen, then with a quicksilver change of emotion the teasing re-erupts, voices are raised and the jabbing harmonies become spiteful. At last, order is restored and the children’s happiness returns, until with a quick scampering up the piano – they’ve gone.


Manet’s well-known painting of 1862, Music in the Tuileries, also helps the imagination.

Music in the Tuileries Gardens 1862






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Face to Face with Mussorgsky – via a Picture at an Exhibition

In a chance conversation after a recent recital at which I performed Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, an audience member reminded me about the current exhibition, Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky  at the National Portrait Gallery in London. So today I went to see it … and came face to face with Mussorgsky, in the iconic portrait by Ilya Repin, painted in March 1881. The sittings for the portrait were between 3rd-5th March in a hospital ward in St Petersburg, where Mussorgsky had been admitted owing to chronic alcoholism. Repin had wanted another sitting – but sadly, Mussorgsky died on 16th March.

Mussorgsky - by Ilya Repin

On either side of Mussorgsky’s portrait are those of two other musical giants: Anton Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky. On another wall is Rimsky-Korsakov; elsewhere, Chaliapin, Akhmatova, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov and a host of other important Russian artistic figures. Vladimir Stasov is there, too – he whose idea it was to mount the exhibition of Hartmann’s paintings which were Mussorgsky’s inspiration. And discreetly playing in the background are excerpts of music by the composers, including – right on cue as I stood staring into his eyes – Mussorgsky’s Great Gate of Kiev.

The exhibition ends on June 26th – don’t miss it – or else you’ll have to travel to Moscow to see these portraits.  Read a review here.


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Promenade; Il Vecchio Castello. A Castle in the Clouds?

Mussorgsky is on the move again. The key of the familiar Promenade  is now a tone lower than at the opening, more reflective, less brash, and the melody is in the tenor register as an unaccompanied solo voice, repeated with added chords above it , rather than below. The choice of harmonies, texture and range create a change of mood; the music is thoughtful, and instead of an emphatic final perfect cadence, Mussorgsky uses an open-ended imperfect cadence, ushering us along to the next picture.

Hartmann travelled widely in Europe, and his exhibition featured sketches from his journeys. He made a watercolour sketch of The Old CastleIl Vecchio Castello – I wonder which one, and where? The picture no longer exists, but Mussorgsky’s music will sketch a different castle in the mind of each listener. To fuel the imagination, below is the Rocca Borromeo di Angera, Borromeo Castle in Angera, dated 1880, drawn by writer and painter Samuel Butler.

Angera Castle


Mussorgsky adds a troubadour playing a lute to his musical representation of the castle; this is a stroke of genius, adding the human dimension. The preceding Promenade cadence now resolves onto a tonic of G# minor; a  LH drone underpins a melody which is modal, meandering and melancholy. Marked Andante molto cantabile e con dolore, a rocking 6/8 time signature and irregular phrase lengths add to the hypnotic feel of the music. Unhurried, it moves sadly towards its conclusion, becoming ever more fragmented and broken, repeating itself as if constantly revisiting painful memories. Mysterious chords and a final, defiant gesture of the two opening notes of the melody bring us to the end. The tonic lingers on in the bass, unwilling to let go.

Here is Pletnev –



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Gnomus – the Nutcracker Gnome

GnomeA sudden shock. After the brisk stride of Mussorgsky’s Promenade, the gait changes to the lurching, limping stagger of ‘Gnomus’: a picture of a toy nutcracker in the shape of a Gnome, with crooked legs. Hartmann’s picture no longer exists, but the music tells us much. This is not a humorously benevolent garden gnome; it’s more the darkly malevolent variety. Perhaps the image on the left captures something of the idea.

In an abrupt change, the noble, B flat major chordal texture of the Promenade disappears, replaced by a gruff , E flat minor melody in the low register, with halting, staggering steps, pausing to catch its breath.

RH syncopated chords descend as the LH ascends in ungainly intervals; the music pivots around and halts, like an uncontrolled movement, brusquely checked.

The hands share crawling octaves and wide uneven steps, suddenly reversed, before menacing LH trills and evil chromatic snarls below swooping RH chords crescendo to piercing dissonances and a petrified silence – and a quick, frantic sprint in contrary motion to the safety of the final chord.

Below, Byron Janis performs ‘Gnomus’ from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The artwork below is by Natasha Turovsky.


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Pictures and Promenades – Mussorgsky goes for a walk

Russian Academy of Fine Arts

It was to the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg  [above] –  now known as the Russian Academy of Fine Arts –  that Mussorgsky went in 1874 to visit his deceased friend’s paintings. Quite an impressive building in itself, and Hartmann’s exhibition was also impressive, comprising over 400 works – watercolours, drawings and sketches.  What grandeur and splendour as a backdrop for this exhibition. Hartmann, as an architect, would have been delighted.

Russian Academy of Fine Arts panorama

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition opens with a musical ‘selfie’, an ambulatory Promenade as the composer walks in – you can almost hear his pride as he enters the gallery. Although the metre is irregular, with alternate bars of 5 beats and 6 beats, the tread is steady, the mood confident, the pace purposeful. Allegro giusto, the score tells us, nel modo russico, senza allegrezza, ma poco sostenuto.


The Royal Marriage at St Petersburg, the Greek Ceremony, in the Imperial Chapel of the Winter Palace1874 was a significant year for Mussorgsky, and for St Petersburg. In January, the world premiere of Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov took place. The exhibition of paintings took place in February and March. And also in March, Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Albert, Duke of Edinburgh, married the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia in the Imperial Chapel of the Winter Palace [left].

The Illustrated London News was there, publishing ‘Sketches in St Petersburg during the Royal Marriage Festivities, [below, right] .Sketches in St Petersburg during the Royal Marriage Festivities



And there were other ‘Sketches in St Petersburg’ published too, in April 1874 [below].

So that is where the exhibition took place, and these were the people on the streets that year, when Mussorgsky ventured out for his Promenade.

We’ll hear further Promenades as he walks about, his reactions reflected in their speeds, keys and registers. But next, on to the first painting …




Sketches in St Petersburg








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Pictures – Background and Perspective

In 1874 the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky attended an exhibition of paiVictor Hartmannntings by his friend Victor Hartmann, painter and architect (left), who had died the previous year. Mussorgsky immortalized the exhibition by composing a work based on some of the pictures which he saw. He also immortalized his own attendance by incorporating a series of ‘Promenades’, all based on the same musical theme, which show his changing moods and reactions as he walks about.

What a unique idea. Works of art have inspired pieces of music before and since – Liszt’s Sposalizio and Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse spring to mind – but to capture a number of pictures plus the viewer’s response  is surely a one-off. Mussorgsky composed the piece in three weeks, using the name Hartmann as a working title. In a letter to Vladimir Stassov, the art critic whose idea the exhibition was, Mussorgsky wrote:

‘My dear généralissime, Hartmann is seething as Boris [his opera, Boris Godunov] seethed,—sounds and ideas hang in the air, I am gulping and overeating, and can barely manage to scribble them on paper. I am writing the 4th №—the transitions are good (on the ‘promenade’). I want to work more quickly and reliably. My physiognomy can be seen in the interludes. So far I think it’s well turned… ‘


Mighty_HandfulMusssorgsky was a member of the group known variously as ‘ the Five’, ‘The Balakirev Circle’ or ‘the Mighty Handful’, five Russian nationalist composers [left] who sought to give a distinctly Russian identity to their music, rather than a European flavour. Remarkably, they were largely self-taught amateurs; Mussorgsky’s ‘day-job’ was in the civil service.

So – got your ticket for the exhibition? And you’re wearing comfortable shoes? Right. Let’s go through the door of the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg and start the tour …



Mily Balakirev (top) César Cui (upper left)
Modest Mussorgsky (upper right)
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (lower left)
Alexander Borodin (lower right)

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